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The monstrosity next door

Todd Gish is an architect and urban historian in Los Angeles.

The City Council is considering a proposed ordinance that would curtail “mansionization.” If the measure passes, the maximum allowable size of a house on many residential lots would drop from about 7,000 square feet (excluding garage) to about 3,000.

The use of the word “mansion” here is not complimentary. It’s meant to conjure up a scenario in which a residential street of, say, 1920s cottages or 1950s ranch houses suddenly gets a new neighbor -- a 3,500- or 4,000-square-foot house with two full stories. Though meeting the required setbacks, the building’s bulk makes it more visually prominent than the older houses on the street. What’s more, it may have an architectural style or features that some find ugly -- or simply out of place on the block. The result: unhappy longtime homeowners bemoaning the changing character of their neighborhood -- loss of privacy, sunlight, views or charm -- and demanding that City Hall do something.

Replacing older, smaller houses with newer, bigger ones is not new, of course, in Los Angeles or elsewhere. It is part of the continuing process of urban -- and now suburban -- redevelopment in any maturing region. The fact is, much of the housing stock in Los Angeles is old. According to the 2006 census, about 700,000 dwelling units (half of the city’s 1.36-million total) were built in the 1950s or before.

Many of these are private houses: shingled bungalows from the 1910s near the central city, for example, or stucco cottages from the 1920s and 1930s in West and South L.A., or post-World War II ranch houses in the San Fernando Valley. These older dwellings were built when the list of standard domestic amenities topped out at two or three bedrooms, a bathroom, a small kitchen and a living room shoe-horned into 1,200 square feet or so. Over the years, owners added a family room here, a bathroom there, a master bedroom suite in back or on top to enlarge their living space.

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But the demand for more space has continued to grow, and the amount of square footage has reached new levels.

Critics of mansionization blame greedy developers for building boxy monstrosities, and they excoriate the owners of such houses for grandiosity, bad taste and self-indulgence. But the reality is that, in the decades since the older homes were built, culture and technology have changed Americans’ consumption of domestic space.

Consider the bathroom. Where one bathroom was sufficient for a typical family until the 1950s or so, and two serve many households today, the standard is approaching one bathroom per person in high-end residential development. Homeowners also want more spacious bedrooms, family rooms, kitchens and even garages.

So why shouldn’t houses be bigger today? And aren’t property rights a cornerstone of the American dream? How dare City Hall dictate to property owners what they can or cannot build on their land? About 304,000 lots in the flatlands of L.A. would be affected.

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But this freedom has always come with official strings attached. Laws in the 19th century prevented property owners from operating such “nuisances” as slaughterhouses, lest they disturb the neighbors’ “quiet enjoyment” on adjacent land. Government’s right to dedicate easements and to tax the value of land are also long-standing. The number of these strings has increased over time, as more people have come to live in closer proximity (multiplying incidents of conflict). It is simply incorrect to think that an owner’s rights in real property have ever been absolute in the United States.

The history of urban planning and development in the U.S. is rife with debates over these issues -- what planning and urban historian Robert Fishman calls “the urban conversation.” The path to public regulation over private property has never been linear or even.

Every new rule imposed on property owners -- including those now taken for granted, such as height limits, setbacks, land use, structural design, required parking -- has been proposed, opposed, imposed, enforced, ignored, resisted, sued over, changed, ruled on and only finally become accepted over a period of years or longer. This back and forth -- taking place in council chambers, courtrooms and voting booths, on newspaper pages, over the airwaves and online -- is the “conversation” Fishman writes about.

Los Angeles homeowners have been vocal in this conversation for more than a century. As more people have moved here and built houses, apartment buildings, stores and factories, conflicts between neighbors have multiplied. Once the hue and cry gets loud enough to reach City Hall, officials react with a new law to try to solve the problem.

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One pertinent example: In 1921, the L.A. City Council approved a cutting-edge ordinance that established comprehensive zoning. All lots were zoned either for single-family houses, apartment buildings, commercial buildings or factories. This basic categorization effectively determined every parcel’s development potential (and, hence, its property value), so controversy was unavoidable. Debate raged for years.

Residential property owners who enjoyed their home and neighborhood rejoiced if their street was zoned for private dwellings, because this meant protection from bigger, new buildings. But some residential districts got classified for future multifamily use. There, older houses were typically replaced with apartments. In 1928, after a new four-plex was built on the adjacent lot, one longtime homeowner near Jefferson Boulevard and Normandie Avenue complained bitterly to an interviewer about “the monstrous, un-homelike thing next door to me.” Sound familiar?

Other property owners who considered their home and lot as an investment were disappointed if their block was zoned only for private dwellings. They wanted the opportunity to build multiple rental units to achieve a better financial return on their property. The owner of 2214 Western Ave., for instance, wrote the City Council in 1921: “Don’t rob me ... of the salable part of my home by making [my block a] single-family zone.”

The same battle is at the heart of the mansionization debate in 2008. Homeowners who enjoy their tree-lined street of bungalows demand that something be done to further limit the grander ambitions of their neighbors. And those neighbors who wish to build out their houses to what the law currently allows don’t want the rules changed in the middle of the game

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Is it time for yet another limitation on what owners of residential lots in L.A. may build? Probably so, given the upturn in housing prices in recent years, the corresponding growth in house construction of all kinds and the resulting increase in urban density. But the drastic reduction in permissible square footage called for in the ordinance goes too far.

According to city planning reports, the proposed regulation would cap the square footage of a house on about 119,000 lots (almost 40% of the 304,000 single-family residential lots affected) at roughly 3,000. For some families, that’s plenty of room to live in. For others, more room is needed.

Requiring property owners to be more considerate of their neighbors when rebuilding or expanding their homes is reasonable. But cutting the allowable living space for so many of the city’s newer homes is not, considering the steep prices recent buyers paid for the property and the growing national standard for more household space.

There is a middle ground between over-regulation and a hands-off approach. Yes, require that new structures meet sensible new rules for sitting politely on their sites, with appropriate setbacks, height limits, stepped profiles and adequate landscaping. A skillful architect can achieve all this without lopping off half the house. After all, if existing neighbors’ sunlight and privacy are maintained, and the street’s frontage is kept free of big, boxy facades, isn’t that the goal?

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The proposed ordinance is too strict. It swings a sledgehammer when a whack with a wood mallet would suffice.


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